Cinderella (sports)

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In sports, the terms Cinderella or "Cinderella Story" are used to refer to situations in which competitors achieve far greater success than would reasonably have been expected.12 Cinderella stories tend to gain much media and fan attention as they move closer to the championship game at the end of the tournament.3 The term comes from Cinderella, a well-known European folk tale embodying a myth-element of unjust oppression/triumphant reward. The title character is a woman living in unfortunate circumstances that are suddenly changed to remarkable fortune. In a sporting context the term has been used at least since 1939, but came into widespread usage in 1950, when the Disney movie came out that year, and in reference to City College of New York, the unexpected winners of the NCAA Men's Basketball championship also that year.4 The term was used by Bill Murray in the 1980 hit movie Caddyshack where he pretends as the announcer to his own golf fantasy: "Cinderella story. Outta nowhere. A former greenskeeper, now, about to become the Masters champion."5

Referring somewhat inaccurately to the plot details of the classic Cinderella story, the media will debate whether the given "Cinderella" team or player will "turn into a pumpkin," i.e. fail to win the prize and then return to its former obscurity.6 In the fairy tale, it was the carriage that turned into a pumpkin at midnight, not Cinderella herself. Another popular term is "strike midnight," when a Cinderella team does finally get beaten.7

Prior to the widespread use of "Cinderella" in this way, the more common term for unexpected and dramatic success was "Miracle," as in the "Miracle Braves" of 1914, the "Miracle of Coogan's Bluff" in 1951, the "Miracle Mets" of 1969, and the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980.8

Cinderella teams are also referred to as a surprise package or surprise packet, and their success would be termed a fairy-tale run.9

A related concept is the giant-killer, which refers to a lesser competitor who defeats a favorite, reflecting the story David and Goliath.


Examples of "Cinderellas"

Many teams are considered "Cinderella teams" when they seemingly overachieve. For example, the Tampa Bay Rays and the Arizona Cardinals went all the way to their respective leagues' championships in 2008 only to "turn into a pumpkin" at the end. This list is largely confined to "Cinderella teams" that won championships.

American Football

NFL

College

Association Football

Baseball

MLB

College

  • Fresno State (2008) – In one of the more improbable Cinderella stories in American sports history, the Bulldogs surmounted a daunting array of obstacles on their way to the NCAA title.2627 Fresno State had never won an NCAA championship in any men's sport going into the 2008 tournament. The Bulldogs entered the Western Athletic Conference tournament at 33-27; they would likely not have made the NCAA tournament without winning the WAC tournament, which they did.28

Basketball

College

Professional

  • Boston Celtics (1969) – The Boston Celtics were coming off a championship against Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and the Los Angeles Lakers and superstar Center Bill Russell was heading into what would be his final year. The aging Celtics had won 10 of the previous 12 NBA Championships, but with offensive powerhouse Wilt Chamberlain joining the already powerful Lakers, it appeared as if the Celtics, who were practically limping into the Finals, would easily take care of the old squad. The Celtics fell into a quick 2-1 deficit but came back to force a Game 7 in Los Angeles, with Bill Russell calmly stating "One thing the Lakers cannot do, is beat us". With the Lakers preparing balloons and confetti for "when, not if, the win", the Celtics took inspiration from their arrogance and went on to win it with a key circus basket by Don Nelson that went about 10 feet into the air after bouncing from the back of the rim before sailing through the net. The win sent Russell and fellow hall of famer Sam Jones to retirement as champions, with Russell winning his 11th championship and Jones his tenth.33

Canadian football

  • 1989 Saskatchewan Roughriders – The Roughriders finished the season with a 9-9 record and made an improbable run to the 77th Grey Cup. The team went into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak, but upset the 10-8 Calgary Stampeders 33-26 in the West Division Semi-Final before upsetting the heavily favored Edmonton Eskimos (who finished the season with a 16-2 record) in the West Division Final, 32-21. This victory set up the Grey Cup game against the 12-6 Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Dave Ridgway's 26-yard field goal in the final minute gave the Riders a 43-40 victory, along with the franchise's first Grey Cup championship since 1966.34

Ice hockey

  • Chicago Black Hawks (1938) - The Black Hawks would struggle with a 14-25-9 record. However, they earn a playoff spot. In the first series, the Black Hawks would take on the Montreal Canadiens. Although they lost the first game of the series, The Hawks would win the next two games including a shocker 3-2 OT victory at Montreal. Then, they would face the New York Americans. Like the first series, the Hawks would drop the opening game, before winning the next two games. In the Stanley Cup Finals, they would take on the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Black Hawks won the first game before dropping the second game. Then the Hawks would win the next two games to take home their 2nd Stanley Cup. They are considered the biggest Cinderella story in NHL history and they became the first pro sports team to win a championship with a losing record.35
  • United States men's national ice hockey team (1980) – The American team, consisting entirely of amateur and collegiate players, won the Olympic gold medal. Along the way, they defeated the Soviet Union, considered the best hockey team in the world at the time, by a score of 4-3 in a medal round game, an event known as the Miracle on Ice and widely considered to be the greatest U.S. sports achievement of the 20th century.36

Examples of Cinderellas that did not win the championship

These Cinderellas made it to the finals in their respective leagues.

Association Football

Baseball

Basketball

College

  • Loyola Marymount University (1990)43 – After averaging an NCAA record 122 points per game, the Lions lost senior leader, and former scoring and rebounding champion, Hank Gathers, to a heart condition as he died on the court. However, the Lions fought their way to the Elite Eight where they lost to eventual champion UNLV Rebels. Their run included defeating defending national champion Michigan 149-115.
  • Virginia Commonwealth University (2011) – Many fans and analysts, including Dick Vitale, Jay Bilas, and Billy Packer, were surprised that VCU was given a berth in the NCAA Tournament as a #11 seed over other teams that seemed to be more deserving of an at-large berth.44 However, VCU silenced all the critics by upsetting five teams from five different power conferences en route to the Final Four: USC in the First round, #6 seed Georgetown in the second round, #3 seed Purdue in the third round, #10 seed Florida State in the Sweet Sixteen, and #1 seed Kansas in the Elite Eight. They became the first team to make the Final Four after playing a play-in game, as well as being the third #11 seed to make the Final Four after LSU in 1986 and George Mason in 2006. However, just like LSU and George Mason, they were defeated in the Final Four, losing to fellow mid-major Butler.

European

  • Macedonia national basketball team, Eurobasket 2011. FYR of Macedonia hadn't had any success in basketball before and were considered one of weaker teams of the tournament. In group stages they unexpectedly beat Greece, Croatia and Slovenia and advanced to playoffs. In the quarterfinal they were considered underdogs against hosts Lithuania, but they managed to defeat the Baltic team 67-65 in one of the biggest upsets of the tournament. Macedonia finished fourth with a record of 6 wins and 4 losses only losing in double digits to Spain.4546

NBA

  • Phoenix Suns (1976 NBA Finals)47 – Despite entering the playoffs with only a 42–40 record, the Suns would upset the defending champion Golden State Warriors to enter the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. Despite giving the Celtics a triple-overtime thriller in Game 5, the Suns would lose to the eventual champion Celtics 4 games to 2. That season's team was given the nickname of the "Sunderella Suns".

College football

Ice hockey

College

NHL

  • Minnesota North Stars (1991 Stanley Cup Finals)54 – Despite a losing record in the regular season and being the 16th seeded team in the NHL with only 68 points, the North Stars made it to the Stanley Cup Finals for the second time in franchise history. They knocked off the Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues (the top two teams in the NHL during the regular season) in six games each, making it the 2nd and 3rd largest upsets respectively in NHL history in points. And defeating the defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers in five games. The team fought hard against the eventual champion Pittsburgh Penguins, led by Mario Lemieux, winning two out of the first three contests before being obliterated 8-0 in Game 6 of the best-of-seven series.
  • Edmonton Oilers (2006 Stanley Cup Finals)57 – The Oilers entered the Stanley Cup Playoffs as the eighth seed in the Western Conference. They upset the Red Wings (who had 124 points, the first time the Red Wings and any team had 120+ points since the 1996), and the San Jose Sharks each in six, and the Anaheim Mighty Ducks in five to reach the Stanley Cup Finals, where they faced the Carolina Hurricanes. The Oilers rallied from a 3-1 deficit to tie the series without the help of their injured starting goalie before finally losing in Game 7.
  • Philadelphia Flyers (2010 Stanley Cup Finals)58 – The Flyers, inconsistent for much of the season and battling injuries that left them at one point starting their 4th choice goaltender (Johan Backlund), qualified for the playoffs in the final game of the season in a shootout against their rival New York Rangers. As the seventh seed, the Flyers upset rivals and Atlantic Division champions, the New Jersey Devils in five games in the first round. In the second round, the Flyers defeated the Boston Bruins in seven games, in the process becoming only the fourth team in sports history to win a series in which they had trailed 3-0 at one point. In the conference final, they needed just five games to beat the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, who had been on something of a Cinderella run themselves; the Canadiens had defeated the top seeded Washington Capitals and defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. In the Finals, the Flyers lost in overtime to the Chicago Blackhawks six games. Who won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.59

Rugby League

  • In 2004, the North Queensland Cowboys reached the finals for the first time in their 10-year history.60 Finishing seventh at the end of the regular season, the Cowboys were drawn against the second-placed Bulldogs in the first week of the finals and pulled off a major upset by winning 30–22.61 They followed this up with a 10–0 defeat of the Brisbane Broncos on their home ground; this marked the first time the Cowboys had defeated the Broncos in their history.62 However their run would be ended with a close 19–16 defeat to the Sydney Roosters in the preliminary final.63
  • In 2005, the Wests Tigers, in just their sixth season of existence, won the premiership. They had never previously made the finals in five seasons and had been as low as 12th on the NRL ladder by the middle of the season. However, they were able to find some good form in the second half of the season to eventually finish the regular season 4th on the ladder. In their first ever finals match, the Tigers scored a big 50–6 victory over the previous year's Cinderella story, the North Queensland Cowboys.64 This was followed up with a 34–6 victory over the Brisbane Broncos in the second week65 before going on to upset the premiership favourites St. George Illawarra 20–12 in the preliminary final.66 This advanced the Wests Tigers to their first ever Grand Final, which was dubbed the "Battle of the Cinderellas", as their opponents were the North Queensland Cowboys who fell one game short of the decider in 2004 but went one better in 2005. The Tigers would then win the Grand Final 30–16 and complete their own Cinderella fairytale.6768
  • In 2009, the Parramatta Eels produced a miracle run to reach the Grand Final; after sitting as low as 14th on the ladder by Round 18, a seven-match winning streak late in the season would see the team finish the regular season placed eighth on the ladder, and thus draw the top-placed St. George Illawarra Dragons in the first round of the finals. The Dragons had beaten the Eels 37–0 in the final round of the regular season (this was the match that ended the Eels' seven-match winning streak), but conjured a turnaround in form to upset the minor premiers 25–12.69 The Titans went on to defeat the Gold Coast Titans and Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs in subsequent finals matches, to qualify for the Grand Final match, which they would ultimately lose to the Melbourne Storm (who were since stripped of this title for salary cap breaches).70 Nevertheless, the Eels became the first (and only) team under the McIntyre System to reach the Grand Final from eighth position on the ladder.
  • In 2010, the Canberra Raiders produced a miracle run to reach the finals after sitting as low as 14th on the ladder after Round 17. The Raiders would then win eight of their remaining nine regular season matches, including defeating the eventual minor premiers (and premiers), the St. George Illawarra Dragons, in Round 24;71 the only loss during this period was against the Melbourne Storm in Round 21, and they only entered the top eight for the first time upon defeating the North Queensland Cowboys in the penultimate round. The Raiders would finish the season in seventh place, and thus drew the second-placed Penrith Panthers in the first round of the finals. Against the odds, the Raiders would upset the Panthers by winning 24–22;72 this subsequently earnt them a home final against the Wests Tigers which would be played in front of a Canberra Stadium record crowd of 26,476. Unfortunately, the Raiders' dream run wound end with a narrow 26–24 defeat, after Jarrod Croker missed a chance to potentially send the match into extra time after he missed a shot at a penalty goal in the dying minutes.73 Despite this setback, the Raiders' 2010 season was considered a success given their dismal first half of the season.

Tennis

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  63. ^ Ready Roosters end Cows' dream run - League - www.smh.com.au
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  65. ^ Tiger cubs savage Broncos - League - Sport - www.smh.com.au
  66. ^ Dragons dream over as Tigers roll on - League - Sport - www.smh.com.au
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